“News” is more important than “paper”

There is a lot of discussion going on at the moment about the bombshell Booth Newspapers dropped today regarding its move to “invest in its digital future,” which is a pleasant way to say they are scaling back on print editions and employees. If you follow the link I put in above, you’ll be able to read the letter with the company’s spin on this announcement. If you want to know the basic facts of what’s actually happening and what it really means to you as a reader or subscriber, then you should jump straight to the company’s FAQ.

My Twitter and Facebook feed exploded with this news and potential fallout from it, with comments discussing the entire universe of what this announcement means. Some folks are worried about their friends and colleagues who work at Booth-owned newspapers. Others are declaring that they saw this coming and it was only a matter of time until the news chain went primarily to online distribution. And still others are pointing to this announcement as the continuing death of newspapers.

They are all somewhat right, and yet they all may be wrong just a bit, too.

As a former newspaper reporter, I can attest to the fact that for generations it has always been the newsroom and the reporting staff that gets cut first when the budget axe is wielded. So, people are right to be concerned about folks losing their jobs — Booth even admitted that layoffs are possible if people can’t find a proper fit within the new organization. Those who remain will be referred to as “content producers,” which is to say they are the ones who learned to adapt to a rapidly changing world in ways that allowed them to marry their experience with technological abilities.

Those who are suggesting that we all should have seen this coming may be right — after all, the newspaper industry has from the beginning bungled its use of the Internet at the expense of its print products. There is little indication that anyone has learned how to correct the initial blunder of offering news content for free online but only via payment for hard copies. I don’t see that changing, so I suppose my kids will be using something else to line birdcages with some day.

Despite my nostalgic fondness for the smell of newsprint and the ink smeared on my fingers, I’d have to say that it is those suggesting the death of newspapers who are most inaccurate in their assumption. It is not the death of newspapers that should concern us, it’s the death of news gathering. Paper is, after all, just a form of delivery. There is some truth to the notion that you tend to stumble upon news more when reading a print edition than an online edition, but our habits will adjust over time. If the news is gathered properly, completely, and accurately, does it really matter what form it’s delivered to us in?

The biggest issue surrounding this announcement is what this new MLive Media Group will mean for the “content producers.” Will they be given enough resources — meaning equipment and fellow employees — to actually do some real reporting? Or will they be hamstrung by resources, forced to regurgitate press releases and become aggregators of what other people are doing and saying, often without the burden of journalistic standards and integrity?

This story is just breaking and it’s far from over since we won’t know what the real impact will be for some months to come. In the meantime, I hope it all turns out well for the company, its employees and its customers. In the world of journalism, “news” is more important than “paper.” If we’d all stop losing sight of that fact, we might just become the consumers that these organizations need to know exist — people who want accurate, complete news and not a bunch of regurgitated hearsay made pretty with blue links and shaky video.

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15 comments on ““News” is more important than “paper”

  1. Ari,
    It’s not really about the medium. That’s what so disingenuous about this annoucement. This is just cutting costs with their fingers crossed hoping a silver bullet for the economic model for online news is found.
    Because if newspapers don’t start making money online, those online news sites they are investing so heavily in will go down, too. It’s all about the money.

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    • You raise a good point, Tom. If the funding formula doesn’t work for print, and they use the same failed formula for online, then this won’t end well. This all goes back to one of my points in the post — no one has figured out how to turn back the clock and make it so that the public doesn’t expect, and in some cases demand, that news content be provided for free. Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  2. Well-framed, Ari . . . and good reality-check reminder from Tom.

    George Orwell would appreciate this from the FAQs: “We will only deliver on the days you told us are most important to you.”

    Now, as you note, let’s see if they also retain enough experienced reporters and editors to deliver high-quality news that is most important to readers.

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    • Thanks for the comment Alan. The quote you pulled from the FAQ is something, that’s for sure. Who told them which days are most important for delivery? Some focus group or a half-baked poll of 600 readers? Shouldn’t every day be an important day for delivery? It would be if the newspapers actually focused on delivering real news again. But that’s a subject for another blog post some day. 🙂

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  3. I have to agree with Tom. Former colleagues of mine who work for organizations that have invested heavily in digital say that print profits still rule the roost.

    Although I would suggest that MLive is basing this move heavily on what it’s learned from both AnnArbor.com (consolidated print schedule, mostly digital emphasis and lower pay scales) and the mlive.com/detroit experiment (all digital, no legacy costs, minimal overhead and benefiting from the scale of MLive.com). The latter site has steadily grown over time and led to the new /lansing “hub,” to use the new company’s vernacular.

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    • Solid perspective, Sven.

      Part of MLive’s growth in terms of impact and respect, in my view, flows from ed-in-chief Bill Emkow’s smart hiring of bloggers such as Jeff Wattrick and Aaron Foley and even a go-getter web producer (Ashley C. Woods) who wrote a superb smackdown last Fri. [http://bit.ly/uKrTMc] of a nonsensical Det News op-ed headlined “Millennials will save Detroit.” Wattrick, in a league of his own, recently live-blogged an overnight stay with Occupy Detroit and delivers a steady stream of well-written enterprise reporting on L’Affaire Ficano.

      I hope MLive’s level of journalism thrives and spreads through the reformed group.

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    • Sven, I agree there are instances where this focus on digital will work, but I’m not convinced that the new MLive hub in Lansing is. So far, I’ve seen too many instances where “news” has just been an aggregation of links about what other people are doing. I’m not the only one to comment on that happening, so I can safely say it’s not just me. Booth decimated its Capitol Bureau and now thinks that the new MLive Lansing hub is going to pick up the slack, along with covering mid-Michigan as a whole? I don’t see it happening, but I’m willing to keep an open mind and hope for the best. Cheers!

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  4. ^ Agreed. I used to report directly to him, so I may be a bit biased, but Emkow’s a very smart guy who’s found a way to grow the online product.

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    • I’ve heard Emkow speak and I agree he’s a great marketer. But I still find the MLive pages to be some of the most confusing, overly busy and frustrating pages to find information on. Is MLive growing because it’s so great or because it’s becoming the only game in town?

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  5. This is, without question, another nail in the coffin of the legacy newspaper industry. But what does that mean? Many of us on this comment thread are former journalists who practiced the craft at very high levels. I firmly believe, and there is some evidence to suggest, great journalism can still be executed at very high levels in online business models. Check out The Texas Tribune, The Bay Citizen, the Voice of San Diego, the MinnPost, and Bridge Magazine right here in Michigan. I can go on with other examples emerging across the nation. If you read these publications, you find great journalists (not “good,” but great) doing exceptional enterprise, document, computer-aided stories that match the quality of the stories found in any big-city daily. So far, these new online models appear to have the juice to be sustainable — little debt, no legacy costs, a mix of solid revenue sources, and engaged readers/members/subscribers. Maybe I just want to believe journalism’s cup is half full.

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  6. One thing that has really stood out to me: No news outlet or industry observer (i.e. Poynter et al.) that I’ve seen has gone beyond basically regurgitating the information disseminated by the company. People I know who are still with the company tell me the number of layoffs is “staggering,” and in the hundreds. How hard would it be to glean this info from pissed-off employees? I guess it says something about the diminished newsgathering capacity of modern journalism, or something.

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    • Agree on “diminished news-gathering capacity” in the Age of Aggregation, Sven, but question whether all of “the hundreds” are permanently laid off or able to reapply for jobs in the restructured company (aka The Ann Arbor Model).

      No doubt many print-only production and circulation positions are going, going, gone. But I’ve heard that non-management editorial positions are projected to expand, though I don’t know what time frame is envisioned.

      Time will tell, as originality-impaired TV news ‘reporters’ say as a wrap-up.

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    • That is disturbing Sven, but I don’t think it’s really that unexpected, is it? Newspapers generally don’t like talking about themselves, especially if it’s bad news. I find it interesting though that if another company had put out the information and video MLive/Booth released the other day, most newspapers would have picked it apart looking for hidden meanings and veiled messages. We would have then had days of front-page coverage about potential layoffs, what caused them, how the industry is suffering…followed by an editorial lambasting the owners for making bad decisions, and then more stories about the hardships of the employees as they are laid off. My bet is we’ll get maybe one more story out of this and it will be buried.

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  7. Pingback: Newspapers aren’t pizzas and journalists aren’t delivery boys | Here Comes Later

  8. Pingback: MLive may just breathe life back into journalism | Here Comes Later

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